Blog Post

CV and Cover Letter Peer Review Exercise

Three participants reviewing and discussing the CVs and Cover Letters.

Originally posted on the CUNY Humanities Alliance website. 

 

On Friday, September 1, I facilitated a CV and Cover Letter Peer Review Workshop. This was similar in many ways to Workshop I did with the Futures Initiative in 2016.

Typically, before the workshop, I have people submit their CV and Cover Letter to a google drive or dropbox folder. For those who do, I offer individual line-by-line feedback that’s quite extensive. The real reason I do this, though, is that it’s great to get to see other people’s CVs and Cover Letters. Most graduate students haven’t seen that many CVs or Cover Letters, especially those of their peers. Everyone does things slightly differently, and you can gain a lot just from reading others’ materials.

As you can see from the notes from the workshop (below), at the beginning of the workshop, I have everyone introduce themselves and give a few notes for those going on the job market. Then, I ask everyone what the purpose is of the CV and Cover Letter. Everyone knows this, but it’s rarely stated. As with every other written document, the purpose is to communicate something specific to a designated audience to affect the particular outcome you desire. In this case, it’s to communicate your skills and experience to a search committee to get you a job! Working on job materials can feel extremely isolating, as we often do it as a solitary activity. While getting that job seems an all-consuming goal, it’s easy to forget the audience and that you’re communicating to specific people. My CV tips below in the notes are all about that - crafting your documents to a specific audience.

Now, we get into the CV peer review. First, I ask everyone to brainstorm what they already know about what makes a good CV. This is great to prime the mind and learn from each other. Then, the first exercise is a self-reflection. I ask each person to get out their CV and take a notecard. Then, I prompt them with five questions for self-reflection, giving them 30 seconds to answer each question. The time restriction is important here. This is a document you’ve spent a significant amount of time pouring over. The time limitation ensures that you start to answer questions reflexively, and gets people prepared for the second exercise - peer review.

For the peer review of CVs, I have everyone exchange their CV with someone, and then take them through the process that most reviewers go through when looking at CVs. At first, they’re given only enough time to barely glance at the CV, then to look a bit more closely at it, and finally to do a more thorough review. All this happens in about 5 minutes, more time than any reviewer would probably give to a CV, and allows the peer reviewer to get an accurate time-restricted impression to provide feedback on. Here are the prompts I used this time:

  • (30 seconds) Barely glancing at the CV (like you have 100 on your desk and have to find the best 10 in 30 minutes). What are the words and phrases that pop out at you?
  • (1 minute) Based on the CV, what kind of jobs does it seem like this person would be applying for?
  • (2 minutes) Reading the CV more thoroughly, what do you think is the most impressive credential on the CV?
  • (1 minute) Are there pieces of information or areas on the CV that are unclear or need more information?

At this point, I ask everyone to do a distractor task. Mental math is a great one - add 23 and 18 in your head. What’s the answer? …. This is an old psychology experiment trick to see what information people retain after they’ve been distracted for a few moments.

Then, the last question I ask, is:

  • (30 seconds) Without looking at the CV, what stuck out to you as something that makes this person unique as a candidate?

Finally, the pairs are given time to sit and discuss their feedback with each other. We’ll come back at the end and see if anyone has anything they’d like to share with the full group before going onto the Cover Letters. At this point, I often comment about great examples that I see in each of their CVs that they should each go and look at.

I tend to reshuffle the group for the Cover Letters, so that everyone has a new person to give them feedback. The process for Cover Letters is much the same: we brainstorm together what makes an excellent Cover Letter, then do a quick self-reflection exercise, and finally the timed peer review:

  • (30 seconds) Read the first paragraph. Is there something that makes this candidate stand out (compared to the other 50 you just read)? What do you expect to read about for the rest of the letter? Would you want to keep reading?
  • (2 minute) Assume you’re exhausted and distracted, would this letter make clear the connection between the candidate and the job?
  • (1 minute) Do you feel you have a clear understanding of their research and teaching? Are there details that were unnecessary?
  • (30 seconds) Do you think this person is a generalist or a specialist within the field?
  • DISTRACTOR TASK - Future-planning also works, for example, “What are you going to do after this workshop?” or “What do you plan to have for dinner tonight?”
  • (30 seconds) Without looking at the Cover Letter again, if you were to hire this candidate, and could create the position that would suit them best, what kind of job would you create for them?

The pairs then get to sit together to discuss, and we all come back to share.

There are lots of resources out there on writing your CVs and Cover Letters. You’ll also find a fair amount of conflicting advice out there. The best suggestion I can give any candidate is to know your audience. Each discipline, institution, department, and reviewer will have their own preferences. The more research you do about those preferences, and the better you craft your materials to those, the better your chances are of landing an interview. I tell students all the time that every time they apply for a position, they should assume that there are 100 other applicants, and at least 20 of those meet the basic requirements of the position. Their job is to distinguish themselves from those 20, and show why they should be one of the 5 selected for an interview. I recommend that candidates take at least 6 hours for each job application. Most people scoff at that number, but in my experience, it’s better to submit fewer applications that are exceedingly well-crafted, than submit dozens of poorly framed applications.

 


 

CV and Cover Letter Workshop Notes

Friday, September 1, 1:30 - 3:30 pm

This is for academic or alt-academic jobs. We can do another workshop on preparing materials for non-academic jobs. 

 

Introductions

  • Where are you in the process?
  • What kind of jobs are you looking for?

 

Notes on Going on the Job Market

  • Have you googled yourself lately and made sure all your bios in at least the top 10 google results are up to date?
  • Have you talked to your references about your job search? Most references like to have a draft letter, and then edit those for particular jobs as they come up. The more notice you can give them that you need a letter, the better.
  • In developing CVs and Cover Letters, much is dependent on the Institution you’re applying to and the discipline in which you’re situated. The best way to customize your materials to best effect is to figure out the standards in your discipline and within the Institution you’re applying for.

 

Purpose of CV and Cover Letter (and other Job Market Materials)

  • To let them know who you are and where you’re coming from, your expertise and skills
  • To fit with what they’re looking for, if you fit their search (publishing, teaching experience) based on the facts in your CV and the facts that they’re looking for
  • To get you a job
  • To show how you are different than other candidates

 

How do you make a great CV?

  • Make sure the format is uniform, that it’s properly organized and categorized
  • Be efficient, so that people can easily scan it for information (most people spend about a minute reading it)
  • Whether the information is relevant - things that happened more than 5 years before- include all items that are relevant to the job call
  • Have some blank space to make it easy on the eyes
  • Have clear headings
  • Enough description that explains your previous job experience, but not too much.

 

Questions for Self-Reflection on your CV (30 seconds each):

  • What makes you unique, as a candidate? How are you representing that in your CV?
  • Why did you order the sections of your CV the way that you did? Did you include all of the sections that other people did? If not, why not?
  • In each section, have you highlighted (by bolding or emphasizing in some other way) the most important part of the information provided?
  • Have you defined (even in a small way) what each accolade means? If you were on the review committee, how could you differentiate various positions and fellowships? What is your role in those positions?
  • What are you forgetting? For real, what did you not put in the CV?

 

Peer-Review of CVs:

  • (30 seconds) Barely glancing at the CV (like you have 100 on your desk and have to find the best 10 in 30 minutes). What are the words and phrases that pop out at you?
  • (1 minute) Based on the CV, what kind of jobs does it seem like this person would be applying for?
  • (2 minutes) Reading the CV more thoroughly, what do you think is the most impressive credential on the CV?
  • (1 minute) Are there pieces of information or areas on the CV that are unclear or need more information?
  • DISTRACTOR TASK - Add 28 and 18 in your head. (or really do anything that gets your mind off of the CV for a minute)
  • (30 seconds) Without looking at the CV, what stuck out to you as something that makes this person unique as a candidate?

 

What we learned:

  • Figure out how to connect things more - research statement would help with this
  • How long of an explanation do you need

 

How to make an awesome Cover Letter:

  • Use language efficiently - you only have two pages to convey a lot of information
  • Make it clear about where you’re applying, your research and teaching, what you’re bringing to the department
  • Follow the standard composition of a Cover Letter 
  • Make sure each part has a clear purpose
  • The order of the paragraphs depends on the job you’re looking for
  • Use active verbs as opposed to passive language

 

Questions for Self-Reflection on your Cover Letter (30 seconds each):

  • Read the first paragraph only. Think about what they want in a candidate. What are the three things that make you the best candidate?
  • Do you have any connection to the school? If so, have you spelled that out? 
  • Does your Cover Letter connect your qualifications to their job? Does it do so at least in every other sentence?
  • Have you clearly conveyed your research and teaching in a way that connects with the job? Have you used at least 5 keywords/phrases from the job description?
  • Did you accidentally start dissertating? Is there any part of your research overview that you can cut out?
  • Is the last paragraph more than perfunctory? Does it convey your excitement for working at the institution?

 

Peer-Review of Cover Letter:

  • (30 seconds) Read the first paragraph. Is there something that makes this candidate stand out (compared to the other 50 you just read)? What do you expect to read about for the rest of the letter? Would you want to keep reading?
  • (2 minute) Assume you’re exhausted and distracted, would this letter make clear the connection between the candidate and the job?
  • (1 minute) Do you feel you have a clear understanding of their research and teaching? Are there details that were unnecessary?
  • (30 seconds) Do you think this person is a generalist or a specialist within the field?
  • DISTRACTOR TASK - Future-planning also works, for example, “What are you going to do after this workshop?” or “What do you plan to have for dinner tonight?”
  • (30 seconds) Without looking at the Cover Letter again, if you were to hire this candidate, and could create the position that would suit them best, what kind of job would you create for them?

 

What we learned or took away:

  • For academic positions, they require a cover letter and teaching philosophy. How different are they?
  • Diversity statement is a new thing. You can look at the Professor Is In materials on how to shape that.  
  • Tailor teaching paragraph in the cover letter to what’s happening in the school. Look up what the school is about.
  • It’s far from done.
  • How much work needs to go into customizing it for a particular job. Even though I had written letters for postdoctoral positions, but it’s much about who you are as a potential scholar, this is a letter for a specific job, so I need to integrate explicit phrases.
  • Research paragraph: how to you explicit direct it to the job? You can talk about where your research is going.
  • For Community College jobs, you have to flip the teaching with the research. How is this research going to affect your pedagogy? How does that go beyond the classroom into the college?

 


Kaysi’s CV Tips

Format / Aesthetics

  • The font style should match the style of the department you’re applying to and the faculty who will review your materials - Is it a more traditional institution or department? You might want to stick with a serif font (e.g. Times New Roman). Are you applying for a digitally-engaged position? You might want to switch to sans-serif (e.g. Helvetica).
  • All your documents should be similarly styled - The font needs to be at least 12 point font, for the ease of readers. Each of your documents should have the same font, the same header styles, the same spacing on the page. This makes it less jarring for committee members flipping from page to page.
  • Use bolding, font size, and white space to clearly delineate sections - Underlining is a bit passé and makes your document look more “crowded” than simply bolding or increasing the font size and adding more spacing between sections. One of the great things about a CV is it can be as long as you need it to be.
  • Always submit in pdf - formats in Word can change from computer to computer. If you submit pdfs, the style is less likely to change.
  • Make sure your last name is on every page, and add page numbers to your CV - When committee members are carting around that stack of 100 CVs to evaluate, you wouldn’t believe the number of times a random page slips out.
  • Don’t have sections that are more than a page long - You may have a million publications or conference presentations. Try to break these out into subsections such as “peer review publications” vs. “digital publications” and “invited speaking engagements” vs. “conference presentations” vs “conference panel”.
  • Consistent Date position - Almost every section requires dates. In academia, it’s traditional to put the dates on the left-hand side (the most visible information) because when you’re up for tenure, the committee needs to see your productivity each year. Right now in your career, it might make more sense to highlight the content of the work you’ve produced rather than when you produced it, so you could right-justify all the dates. Either way, make sure it’s consistent.
  • Make every line count - Even though the CV can be as long as you need it, who wants to read a 7-page document if the same thing can be accomplished in 5-pages. Review your CV and evaluate each line as its own thing: Is there relevant information in every single line? Are there some sentences you can shorten by being more concise and remove a line?

Information Layout

  • Put the most important things at the top - If you’re applying for a teaching position, or a research-focused position, you should change the order of your CV to reflect the priorities of the position you’re applying to.
  • Try not to separate related sections - If you have two sections that are similar in content (e.g. published articles and digital publications, or teaching appointments and pedagogical training), try if you can to keep those together in the CV, to not break the readers’ flow.
  • Keep date formatting consistent – Almost every section requires dates. In academia, it’s traditional to put the dates on the left-hand side (the most visible information) because when you’re up for tenure, the committee needs to see your productivity each year. Right now in your career, I would argue it makes more sense to highlight the content of the work you’ve produced rather than when you produced it, so you could right-justify all the dates. Either way, make sure it’s consistent.   
  • Differentiate types of publications and presentations when you have too many of them.

 

Content

  • Try to match keywords from the job description and dept website - These subliminal cues are more effective than you might give them credit for. Often, the person who wrote the department’s about page, the Chair’s welcome, or even the job description, is not the same person evaluating your application. Using language frequently used within the department and correctly applying it in the context of your own work can make you seem like a more natural “fit”
  • Add a Research & Teaching Interests section – This is your chance to declare who you are as a scholar, establishing a lens through which they’ll review your other work. This is a great place to both describe your research interests, especially as you don’t have a dissertation topic listed, but also for you to model some of the department's language where you’re applying.
  • Don’t forget the digital (or do, depending on the job) - Many of you have websites and academic blog articles, and are skilled in many technologies. These should be included in your CV, unless you feel the department or university you’re applying to would see that as a negative.

 

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